What are Frank and Claire Underwood Doing Underground in Episode 7 of House of Cards’ Season 5?

Spoiler Alert!

Stop Reading if you’re a House of Cards fan and you haven’t gotten through the 7th episode of Season 5!

But if you have – you’ll recall that amid all the drama and deception, Frank, Claire and senior military and White House officials are suddenly whisked down to the bunker amid reports that a truck carrying radioactive cesium-137 sources has gone missing.

The scene begins when Secret Service agents rush into the Oval Office. “Madame President, we need to evacuate you now!”

Once safely ensconced behind thick steel doors underground, the team gets a readout from General Braeger: “Homeland received word from Cybercom that a truck carrying three cesium-137 irradiators missed two check points. It was supposed to be travelling from Atlanta back to the manufacturer in Baltimore … the truck’s GPS is offline.”

The FBI director goes on to explain that there is enough radiation on the truck to impact a 30-mile radius, and even if the cesium-137 is not weaponized, the misuse or mishandling of it could be disastrous. Frank asks how it could have happened, and Braeger reports that there has been some “increased chatter” from the series’ fictional terrorist group, ICO.

“If this is a dirty bomb,” Frank says grimly, “then we’ve entered into a different world.”

So – could something like this happen? Absolutely. House of Cards may be TV fiction, but the “dirty bomb” threat is real.

The very same radiological isotopes that can make life-saving blood transfusions and cancer treatments possible, such as cesium-137, can also be used to build radiation-spewing “dirty bombs” – and the radioactive sources are located at thousands of sites across more than 150 countries. Many of them are poorly secured and vulnerable to theft.

The House of Cards’ terrorist group doesn’t exist, but real-life radical terrorist organizations such as the Islamic State have said they are looking to acquire and use radioactive material to build “dirty bombs” – and there have been a number of incidents where material has gone missing. And as Frank Underwood suggested, the implications would be significant: If a “dirty bomb” went off, it would release high doses of radiation and contaminate major sections of a city—triggering panic, increasing cancer risks for those exposed, and potentially costing billions of dollars to clean up.

NTI is working with governments and industry to raise awareness about the threat, develop more secure systems for protecting radiological sources, and replace dangerous isotopes with alternative technologies, where feasible, for permanent threat reduction.

Learn more about our work to reduce radiological risks here.

June 21, 2017
Authors
Rachel Staley Grant
Rachel Staley Grant

Director of Public Education

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Leon Ratz is a Program Officer with NTI’s Material Security and Minimization program. He works on issues related to the security of military nuclear materials, Russian nuclear security, and other nuclear security and non-proliferation matters.